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DJI shows off its take on a simple ‘license plate’ reader for drones

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The technology would allow law enforcement to easily identify and track drones

Over the last few years, the number of small drones flying over the United States has grown rapidly. Millions of units were purchased by consumers, small business owners, and big corporations. That’s raised concern in the law enforcement community and from people whose properties — power plants, prisons, and open-air stadiums — have airspace where it could be dangerous for a drone to operate.

At an event in Washington, DC this morning, DJI, the Chinese startup with a commanding lead in the civilian drone market, showed off a device it believes could solve this problem. It’s called the Aeroscope, and it uses the existing command and control signal, a radio transmission between the drone and the remote control. An authorized customer, like a local sheriff’s department, could use the Aeroscope to see any DJI drone within a five-kilometer radius. The scanner would show the drones location, altitude, speed, direction, takeoff location, operator location, and an identifier such as a registration or serial number.

“There are more than twice as many drones as traditional aircraft in America today, and we believe technology and education are the best tools to maintain and improve their admirable safety record as the number of drones continues to grow,” said Brendan Schulman, DJI’s VP of policy and legal affairs. “DJI’s new solutions put that belief into action, providing authorities with a way to identify drones in sensitive locations, and providing drone pilots a way to show they understand how to fly safely.”

He was careful to stress that DJI was working to balance the need of the authorities with the concerns of the company’s customers. “AeroScope is designed to meet authorities’ legitimate needs concerning safety, security and privacy while also respecting the rights of people and businesses who use drones,” Schulman said. “DJI’s solution provides the information authorities need, while ensuring that flight data is only collected on the small number of drone flights that could raise concerns. The overwhelming majority of drone flights are safe, responsible, and uneventful, and we believe there is no reason for them to be centrally tracked and recorded nationwide. We also want to make sure that remote identification solutions are not burdensome or costly for our customers.”

The Federal Aviation Administration convened a working group back in June to discuss what the best options are for remotely identifying and tracking a drones. The group included drone manufacturers like DJI, chip makers like Intel and Qualcomm, and telecoms like Verizon and AT&T. It also had stakeholders from the worlds of law enforcement and aviation. According to recent reports, the group failed to reach a consensus on the single best option, although there was a strong majority that agreed on some simple steps forward.

DJI would have preferred the FAA deliver a set of rules they could build toward. But in the absence of that, they are rolling out a device that can meet the needs of law enforcement today. Of course, Aeroscope only identifies DJI drones for now. The company has a sizable majority of the market for drones under $5,000, but it certainly doesn’t make every unit in the sky. So DJI is also inviting other manufacturers to make their drones compatible with Aeroscope, something it says will require a simple firmware update, without any changes to existing hardware.